Anna steps out of the shadows – Luke 2:22-40

God moves in mysterious ways, and so often uses us at our weakest, because that’s when we don’t get in the way of what he wants to say or do. This morning felt like one of those morning’s in St. Barnabas, and I sense from what people said that God’s message through this ‘inhabitation’ of Anna, may benefit from a wider hearing. The text is below, but if you want to watch it’s on the St. Barnabas feed here, starting at 20 minutes into the the service.

‘Anna’ speaking at St. Barnabas Darby Green

I have got used to waiting in the shadows.
Watching and waiting, fasting and praying.
Listening too, eager to hear what God is saying.

The shadows are my home now, here in the Temple, or at least in that part of it in which I am allowed to stay. I wait here, watching and listening for a sign of hope, for a truer, more steadfast light in the darkness than the braziers that warm the nights.

My former life in the north seems a lifetime away, probably because it is – it’s a long while since I left. As a childless widow I no longer had a place in my community, no value to a society that sets such store by what your status within family life. Odd really when so many of our scriptures tell us that God prioritises the widow and the orphan (Isaiah 1:17, Psalm 146:9) and expects the same from us (Exodus 22:22).

But then, so many of those who jostle for position in society or even within these Temple walls, seem to forget, ignore or neglect the teachings of scripture. I retreated here many years ago, expecting to encounter justice, mercy and love in God’s holy place, but was disappointed to find there was an even greater poverty of integrity in the faith of most who frequent these courts. I was shocked by the number of people who deemed it necessary to be seen to be here every day, or at least every Sabbath and Holy Day. Yes, it’s a big place that usually holds them all quite comfortably, but they have synagogues in their own communities, their own priests and spiritual leaders to whom they can turn for teaching and advice; yet they seem to need to be noticed as worshipping members of the Temple community, rather than supporting fellowships nearer to home. Their presence seems to add to the shadows rather, or at least emphasise that so many lives are so far from seeking God’s presence to be revealed in their neighbourhoods and lives.

Because I’ve watched and listened, studied scripture and even astronomy, I know that shadows are created by light. Even on the brightest day, one creates the other as the sun pushes past the pillars around me. But the biggest shadows in the Temple are those caste by the theological debates that swirl past me, as the leaders of our faith insulate themselves from reality by fabricating the rules and regulations that define who can do what; who can’t do anything; and why we should believe everything they say. So many of our leaders seem to forget that it’s not them that we should be believing in; the light of faith comes from another source entirely – the Spirit of God.

Of course there are regulars here, who seem to have a far more authentic faith, like Simeon for example. He is the seeker and the guide, always looking outwards from his own needs towards those of others. That’s how we got to know each other a bit, as he almost always asks after my health and well-being when he visits. God speaks to the quiet of his soul, and has promised him he’ll see the salvation of all God’s people before he departs this world.

Instead of getting embroiled in heated debates, Simeon prefers to watch quietly, seeking out those who travel-in occasionally from the countryside, the hesitant, and those whose pain and turmoil is written all over their expressions. As he befriends them – engaging them in gentle, perceptive conversation – there’s plenty that I can learn from people’s body language, and indeed hear in the acoustics of this place, even with my dulled hearing and rheumy eyes. So I stand a little distance apart, praying them through their conversation, seeking God’s light in their darkness. At a later time, I’ll try to catch the people concerned and share any wisdom I’ve discerned, or pass it on to them through Simeon. I guess that because I’m willing to speak to people of what God has shown my quietened mind, some have come to tell of me as a prophetess – though that’s to God’s honour not mine.

Today was much the same; Simeon spotted the couple with the child in their arms. Given they’d patently bought two young pigeons in the outer courts, I thought he must their first-born, whom they needed to offer to and redeem from God, as required by those rules and regulations the priests are so fond of. That being the case, the little scrap can only have been a few weeks old, but already he had a presence that seemed to grab your attention. I did wonder why they too had chosen to come here, rather than their local synagogue? They didn’t look or behave like they fitted the mould of those who wanted their neighbours to know their son had been redeemed at the Temple. As with most new parents, they looked tired, and worn, and not a little dishevelled from their journey into town; but they also seemed to carry with them a presence, The Presence, that suggested that for them this was no symbolic act, but had deep significance.

Simeon had spotted that too, and as I watched he received the child into his arms from the parents, with a reverence and a joy that radiated from him. I knew at once that he too sensed this child was different, important, a gift from God. So I listened and prayed even more intently as he proclaimed to the child’s parents that he saw not only his own salvation but the salvation of the world in the life of their son! This was no ordinary child, and I watched his mother’s face as Simeon’s words of blessing spoke of the challenge that their babe would offer to those who currently held their so-called authority in this place so preciously, and the pain that would cause her. She and her husband didn’t seem particularly shocked by the nature of the prophesy. Rather, they looked amazed and grateful that someone shared their understanding of the child’s importance. They already knew, what the Holy Spirit had just revealed to Simeon; the child in their care was the Messiah.

The presence of this child in the Temple changed everything. Here was God, come suddenly to his Temple, just as the prophet Malachi had promised (Malachi 3:1). As Simeon received the gift of God’s grace and peace in the salvation that was being offered by the tiny child in his arms, I saw the redemption of all humanity: this child would grow to fulfil Isaiah’s prophesy that the one who would come to heal the our collective failure to understand and live by our scriptures, would be pierced for all our faults (Isaiah 53). Indeed, he would be the one that would fulfil Israel’s calling to bring God’s light to all the world (Isaiah 60:1-3) if only Abraham’s descendants could recognise that fact and proclaim it to the world.

I knew then that my last days would not be spent in the shadows, but in the light of that knowledge. I stepped out into the courtyard and started to praise God for what I had seen and heard. I interrupted every group of debating theologians I could find. I explained to them that what they were looking for, I had seen; and they could see it too if only they would stop straining the gnats and swallowing the camels (Matthew 23:24) of the rules they said we have to follow to earn God’s favour. Yes, I insisted, God was offering us his mercy, grace and hope, if we would only share in the love of this small child who was the fulfilment of all that had gone before in the history of God’s people. I knew with all of my being that in this babe, God’s Spirit would make possible the end of legalism and redeem us from the cultural sin of ignoring and ostracising the widow, the orphan, and anyone else who doesn’t seek power or make a hollow show of humility. I wanted everyone to know that God’s Spirit was living and active in the life of the little child who had been promised us (Isaiah 11:6), the one who would bring peace and reconciliation to all God’s creation. Those who hear me may not want to listen, but I know what I have seen, and I will end my days, praising God for what he showed me this day in the Temple.

Luke 7:36-8:3 Serving and being served #HMQ90

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The Nave and unusual sanctuary of St. Mary’s Church Eversley.

On the occasion of national celebrations for Her Majesty’s 90th Birthday, I found my self covering a service of Holy Communion in a parish a mere five minutes from my home, rather than the usual 25 minute drive to Old Basing. It’s been a while since I was in St. Mary’s Eversley, but as they work through a vacancy this is the first of a couple of services I’m for them. Due to the celebrations of The Queen’s birthday the service also included the treat of listening to the choir sing Zadok the Priest!

 

I wonder how many times in her long reign Her Majesty The Queen has felt like she is dining at a Pharisee’s house? Perhaps we best not answer that question.

Pharisees got such a poor reputation from the Bible that they became an adjective in our dictionary, a synonym for hypocrisy and dissembling. But, at least at first view, Simon the host in our Gospel passage seems on better terms with Jesus than some of his legalistically minded brethren.

Simon is willing to invite Jesus into his home; pity he forgets to make Jesus welcome too.

When you look at footage of Her Majesty’s 265+ foreign visits, I wonder if like me, you are struck both by the number of symbols of welcome which she encounters: in Tuvalu she was borne shoulder high into the sea in a boat carried by warriors; in Northern Ireland she received a model of the infamous Game of Thrones throne; she received a wooden plaque from athletes in Sierra Leone ; a silver box of soil from World War 1 battle grounds whilst at Wellington Barracks; and in a New Forest clearing in 1979, she was presented with a small posy of garden flowers by a 10 year old girl, who had to curtsey whilst wearing a trouser suit!

I wonder if she’s ever had her feet ceremonially washed?

Many of us will know that common courtesy and tradition in first century Israel-Palestine, should have meant that whatever Simon’s view of Jesus’ status, as a guest entering from the dusty street, Jesus should have been made welcome by having his feet washed. As social faux-pas go, it was quite a big omission. Perhaps it’s a sign of Simon’s confusion about Jesus: is he a prophet or a problem; a servant of God or a seditious dissenter?

An intruder enters and with emotional excess, makes up for Simon’s slight.

The Queen knows a little of intruders too: when in 1982 a gentleman entered her Buckingham Palace bedroom, she said afterwards to those who praised her calm reactions: “you seem to forget that I spend most of my time conversing with complete strangers.”

So did Jesus. His Kingdom-building ministry meant he was constantly on the road, meeting strangers, most of whom were as confused as Simon the Pharisee about Jesus’ role in the world. Unlike the woman with the alabaster jar: she knew exactly what Jesus’ role was; he was her King.

We don’t know what the Palace intruder said to his Queen, just as we hear nothing except weeping from the woman pouring her wealth over Jesus feet. But unlike the Palace intruder, she is a disciple, someone who welcomes Jesus and recognises him as the Messiah; it’s just she doesn’t need words to say so.

In scripture we hear Simon’s concern for the impropriety of the situation overwhelm any understanding of his own mistake – he’s much more worried about her past mistakes than his current ones. He cannot see beyond these to the service and powerful symbolic action that she is making towards Jesus. Simon seeks to score points, rather than understand the depth and dynamics of love and forgiveness, faith and servant-hood.

They are hidden from Simon, deep in that alabaster jar, those tears, that hair, and in Jesus’ unflinching understanding of the woman at his feet: who here is serving, who is being served; who here is King, and who given a Royal inheritance?

Anointing with Oil of Chrism is a sign of Royal status. It was the most private bit of the Queen’s coronation, the part that wasn’t televised. During the singing of Zadok the Priest, the symbols of her status were removed, and in a simple white dress, the oil of Chrism “was poured onto her hands, her chest and her head, to show she was being set apart to serve and love her people in all her actions, with all her heart and with all her mind” (‘The Servant Queen and the King she serves’). To Her Majesty this was the most important part of her coronation, the point which most strongly symbolised the sacrificial qualities of the loving service in which she would devote the rest of her life to the peoples of this country and Commonwealth. Through that service she has sought to tell forth the praises of her Lord Jesus Christ, in the words of her Christmas messages and in the way she relates to people. She may have had Prince Philip at her side all these years to support her, but it is her Christian faith that has been at the “inspiration” and “anchor” of her service.

The woman with the alabaster jar was serving and anointing Jesus because she recognised him as her Lord and King. Something had happened that meant she had seen in him the undiluted love of God and so she placed her faith totally in him. But whilst it was her that was anointing him, at the end of this encounter it is Jesus who serves her with an anointing not of oil, but of public words of forgiveness with which to step forth into the freedom of a new life.

In baptism the stories of love, forgiveness and freedom come alive in the symbolism of water, the stories of creation, of Exodus, of new life. It is the point where we are to invited to metaphorically rise from our knees and start our journey through life taking with us the peace of Christ. As part of this, in some Christian traditions, the oil of Chrism is used as part of baptism services, underlining the fact that through baptism we are made Christ’s Royal people, anointed to serve others, as Christ has served us.

In a world where we are encouraged constantly by the media, by politicians, by economists to make judgements about others, the truthfulness or otherwise of their statements, the validity of one person’s rights over another’s, it is easy perhaps to forget that we are called by Jesus simply to serve one another.

If we are baptised, or wish to be baptised, then to fitly live out our baptism we must make sure we do not live like Pharisees. To show that we have received that anointing for service, we are called not to simply invite the stranger in, but to make them welcome. We are called not to judge the style or degree of another’s sin, but to forgive it. We are called not to hide our faith, but to proclaim it in abundance, by word and action. We are called to live lives as Christ’s Royal people, such that we make others feel not hopeless and downtrodden, but like royalty themselves.

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From behind the altar, the sanctuary design makes for a rather unusual view of the congregation, especially since there’s a who extra aisle and the choir right of picture!

As we celebrate Her Majesty The Queen’s birthday and her life-long commitment to Jesus, let us live as a true witness to the faith we share with her, “inspired [as she herself has said] by Jesus’ simple but powerful teaching: love God and love thy neighbour as thyself – in other words, treat others as you would like them to treat you.”

 

St. Mary’s Eversley, it was a joy to worship with you; thank you for the warm welcome. I look forward to an early morning BCP with you in a few weeks time.